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Friday, July 08, 2005

New Testament Reliability I

There are three primary tests for the historical reliability of all documents – that is, whether they are true to the originals or not. The tests are the bibliographical test, the internal evidence test, and the external evidence test.

The Bibliographical Test

Simply stated, the bibliographical test is and examination of the textual transmission of the documents. Since we do not have the original documents, we examine historical documents and consider both the number of manuscripts (hereafter, MSS) and the time interval between the originals and currently existing (extant) copies.

Considering the number of manuscripts, there is no work of antiquity that has been as frequently copied and widely distributed. In Greek hand copies produced between the second and fifteenth centuries, there are more than 5,686 full and partial copies of the Greek NT. Adding in the over 10,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate and over 9,000 MSS from other early languages (Ethiopic, Slavic, Armenian, Syriac Pashetta, Bohairic, Arabic, Old Latin, Anglo Saxon, Gothic, Sogdian, Old Syriac, Persian, and Frankish), there are over 25,000 NT MSS! No other document of antiquity even comes close. The second is Homer’s Iliad, with 643 manuscripts that still survive – and the earliest complete text dates from the thirteenth century. With such a vast amount of material available, we are able to be reconstruct the originals with virtually complete accuracy.

Clearly, with the volume of early MSS available, we have a document with far greater MSS support than any other, and to doubt the authentic of the NT based upon the number of MSS would be truly illogical. No one questions the validity of other works of antiquity because we do not have the originals – any attempt to do so for the NT is driven not from reason, but from ideology. However, another valid question is the time between the MSS in existence and the actual original writings themselves.

The earliest MSS is of the Gospel of John, dated 130 AD. The earliest collection of any number of books of the NT is from between 150 and 200 AD. The earliest MSS with the majority of the NT is an MSS dated 2250 AD, with a complete NT available from 325 AD. Thus, we have a complete NT from within 225 years or so of the originals, with earlier supporting fragments to verify the authenticity of the NT.

Upon first glance, we may think that 225 years is a long time – but allow me to do a comparison: (I couldn't make this format look like Word does)

Text - Authored -Earliest Complete Text -Difference -Copies

The Iliad (Homer)- 800 BC- 400 BC- 400 yrs- 643
History (Herodotus)- 480-425 BC- 900 AD- 1350 yrs- 8
History (Thucydides)- 460-400 BC- 900 AD- 1300 yrs- 8
Plato- 400 BC- 900 AD- 1300 yrs- 7
Demosthenes- 300 BC- 1100 AD- 1400 yrs- 200
Gallic Wars (Caesar)- 100-44 BC- 900 AD- 1000 yrs- 10
History of Rome (Livy)- 59 BC–17 AD- 1000 AD (400 AD partial)- 1000 yrs- 19 (1 copy of partial)
Annals (Tacitus)- 100 AD- 1100 AD- 1000 yrs- 20
Natural History- 61-113 AD- 850 AD- 750 yrs- 7
(Pliny Secundus)
Greek NT- 50-100 AD- 325 AD (150 AD partial)- 225 yrs 5,366

Additionally, ancient literature was seldom translated into other languages – but we have Syriac and Latin translations of the NT from 150 AD. There are also translations of the NT in Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, Georgian, Ethiopic and Nubian from the third through sixth centuries.

Finally, the early church fathers’ quotations are so numerous, that, if the NT were lost in its entirety, it could be reconstructed from their quotations. There are over 32,000 quotations in the writings of the church fathers who died before the Council of Nicea met in 325 AD. The most significant are Origen, Ingatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian. Dean Burgon left behind an index of New Testament citations by the church fathers of antiquity with 86, 489 quotations.

Truly, there is no document in existence with greater evidence for its reliability from the bibliographical test than the New Testament.

Next: The internal evidence and external evidence tests, with basic principles for understanding apparent discrepancies in the Bible.

5 Comments:

  • Nice work!

    By Blogger Robert, at 7/08/2005 11:32:00 PM  

  • The earliest MSS with the majority of the NT is an MSS dated 2250 AD, with a complete NT available from 325 AD.

    Typo on the dates? Shouldn't it be 250 AD? Great work, though. Nice points. Have heard this point made before in reference to Homer, but it is nice to see it all in a row and be able to see the comparisons.

    By Anonymous SAH Mom, at 7/10/2005 01:10:00 AM  

  • "The earliest MSS is of the Gospel of John, dated 130 AD. The earliest collection of any number of books of the NT is from between 150 and 200 AD. The earliest MSS with the majority of the NT is an MSS dated 2250 AD, with a complete NT available from 325 AD. Thus, we have a complete NT from within 225 years or so of the originals, with earlier supporting fragments to verify the authenticity of the NT."

    Well done overall. Minor quibbles: the Gospel of John piece you mentioned is just that, a piece, a fragment of the gospel so it is probably overstating the case to call it a "manuscript." Secondly, I think it is highly debatable to put a finished canon at 325 as our best witness for that very period, Eusebius, is still not certain what to do with certain books, e.g. Revelation. The first NT canon list that mirrors that of the present day is from found in a festal letter by Athanasius in 367 or so. But even this only *really* tells us about the accepted canon in his area. It is at least possible that the Roman or Syriac churches were still trying to settle their canon in this period; we simply do not know for sure.

    Second, I have always seen this type of list made out to support claims of authenticity, but I wonder what is meant by that term. Does it suggest that we have a pretty good idea of what the autographs looked like? To my mind, yes (although you could find people to argue even this point), but this tells us nothing about the veracity of the contents of the works. I think that this is an important point as the type of info presented here establishes the text, but it really says nothing about the claims found therein...

    By Blogger Pelty, at 7/10/2005 02:55:00 PM  

  • It's not intended to address the claims, pelty, but to do exactly what you say - establish that we have not only a good idea of what the originals looked like, but the very best idea compared to any work of antiquity!

    The question you mention is next.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 7/12/2005 05:01:00 PM  

  • OK, I look forward to it!

    By Blogger Pelty, at 7/13/2005 10:59:00 AM  

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